A CBC News analysis of emergency room wait times reveals the COVID-19 pandemic caused an immediate and sustained drop in the volume of Manitobans showing up at ERs within the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
“We have both a lower demand of patients coming in and a very much reduced wait time to admission of patients that need to be admitted,” said Dr. Paul Doucet, an ER doctor at St. Boniface Hospital.
Data collected from the WRHA’s online wait-time dashboard shows volumes are down between about 30 to 50 per cent since the World Health Organization declared the spread of the novel coronavirus a global pandemic on March 11.
Doucet said he believes people are staying home because they don’t want exposure to COVID-19, and hospital administrators have temporarily created capacity for anticipated COVID-19 patients by cancelling elective surgeries and clinics.
“So patients that have been waiting in the ER, which has always been a major problem for our flow through the ER, those people who are waiting for admission are moved up to the appropriate wards in a very much reduced time frame,” he said.
Between Feb. 1 and the day the pandemic was declared, the average number of patients being actively treated by a physician at the Health Sciences Centre at any given time was 44. Since that time, that figure has dropped to just 28. Over the same period, average wait times dropped from four hours to 2.8.
At Grace Hospital, the average number of patients being treated at any given time fell by more than 46 per cent.
On March 13, the Manitoba government announced schools would imminently be closed and the federal government imposed drastic travel restrictions. This exact moment coincides with the dramatic drop in ER visits, the data shows, but Doucet couldn’t say whether that meant patients were seeking help elsewhere.
“It’s surprising and hard to say with certainty … the fear is that people aren’t getting care and that this burden of illness may be increased in the community and that people will pay a price and we’ll start seeing more people that have been avoiding care for a variety of reasons and maybe increasing numbers in the near term,” he said.
Manitoba’s chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa said the drop in volume and wait times coincides with the province’s first cases announced March 12, and the time leading up to that.
“We did see a reduction in the emergency room wait times and the volumes of patients coming in, lower than we’ve ever seen that I can remember in several years,” she said, adding the phenomenon is likely due to several factors.
“People are not coming to emergency for the things that maybe they did before, and Dr. Roussin has mentioned several times at these media conferences that if you need medical care, you really should be seeking medical care, whether it’s your primary care provider or the emergency room.”
She added although people are not visiting the emergency department for the things they did before, or staying home to avoid the virus or system impact, there might be an added benefit of not having other diseases spreading around as much in the community.
“I can’t really explain why it’s happened but we agree, it is happening and it’s been happening now for many weeks and we may actually experience a rebound at some point too,” she said.
Doucet said it’s been nice to have volumes and wait times reduced, but added there are more infection control measures, stress and anxiety for staff as they look after people who end up not being COVID-positive. The devastating impact of the virus on areas like New York, Italy and Spain has brought an added stress, he said.
“It seems like we’ve been saying for weeks, it’s the quiet before the storm and there’s this dread of what’s coming.”
But for now, there’s some room for optimism, he said, especially given the co-ordinated response so far by government, hospitals and other groups to prepare for the pandemic.
“It’s been a very humbling experience being part of a health-care provider group that’s really kind of worked well as a team,” he said.
“I’d like people to continue listening to our public health officials and following the social distancing policies. It seems like it’s making a very big difference here in Manitoba and all health-care professionals are very appreciative of the public’s understanding and the measures they’ve taken.”
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